By the time the next admission cycle rolls around, Wellesley will begin accepting applications from anyone who identifies as a woman, making Wellesley the fifth women’s college to officially open its doors to transgender women in the last six months. The decision was announced following a wave of declarations from Mills College, Mount Holyoke, Simmons and finally Bryn Mawr that they would alter their admission policies to be inclusive of trans women.
On Friday, President Kim Bottomly appeared before an auditorium full of students to answer their questions about the policy, which had just been released the day before.
“Today we are proud to say that Wellesley will open its doors to a more diverse population of women,” President Bottomly said.
The official announcement of the new trustees’ decision, which was sent out via email, states that anyone who lives as a woman and consistently identifies as a woman will be considered for admission. That excludes trans men, who will not be eligible to apply to Wellesley.
Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies Irene Mata, who served on the President’s Advisory Committee on Gender & Wellesley (PACGW), said that beyond our community, Wellesley and the rest of the women’s colleges who adjusted their policies are playing a critical role in reinforcing the message that trans women are women.
“We’re in this really privileged position where we get to reinforce that very important message,” Mata said. “When we think about what’s happening to our trans community, especially considering the violence against trans women of color and the number of trans women of color who have been killed in the past several months, it’s appalling. Something is very wrong when trans women are being killed by their fathers and being killed on the street and there’s nothing being done to bring them justice.”
Mata said she is proud that Wellesley has taken the step to reaffirm the identity of trans women. Wellesley’s decision has so far been reported in the Boston Globe, the Huffington Post and Slate as well as on TIME.com and WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station.
Bottomly spoke of the policy as representative of a new era in Wellesley’s history.
“The 19th century for women was a century of proving. The 20th century was a century of pioneers, a century of so many first women to do various things. And many of the firsts were Wellesley women,” she said. “The 21st century will be the century of the woman, the first century in which women will have an equal voice in society. We will need to negotiate and renegotiate cultural norms. We will need wise and capable women.”
The policy announced last week is mainly based on self-identification but the College may still request a letter of confirmation — for example from a parent, healthcare provider, teacher or clergy — if a student’s
gender identity is not clearly reflected in the rest of that student’s application materials. The College is aware that the Free Application for Student Aid, or FAFSA, forms is often based on legal documents which are notoriously difficult and expensive to change. Several states like Idaho and Tennessee still refuse to alter the sex on a person’s birth certificate.
Applicants who identify as non-binary — outside of the two-gender system or challenging that system — must have been designated female at birth in order to be considered for admission to Wellesley. Once the student is admitted to Wellesley, the College will not make any attempt to distinguish those who identify as male from those who identify as female. That means that if, after being accepted to Wellesley, a student who comes to identify publicly as a trans man, he will still be able to graduate with a Wellesley degree.
In practice, the inclusion of trans women and exclusion of trans men will likely only affect a small percentage of the population. The current population of trans men on campus is statistically close to zero percent and is outnumbered by the population of gender nonconforming students. In total, the two groups comprise only 0.3 percent of the student body. In fact, there are more men from other colleges who are cross-registered at Wellesley from schools like Olin, Babson and MIT than there are trans men who attend Wellesley.
Still, the question of how to adapt Wellesley’s admission policy to keep pace with our understanding of gender in the 21st century has prompted soul-searching on the part of students, faculty, staff and alumnae as to what Wellesley’s role is as a women’s college in a world that recognizes the fluidity of gender.
The PACGW, which was charged with exploring that very question, agreed in their first meeting in November on the underlying assumption that Wellesley would remain a women’s college. The policy announced last week again reaffirmed the College’s mission to educate women. The announcement itself, as well as President Bottomly’s opening speech at Friday’s question-and-answer session, made use of female pronouns, punctuating the decision to continue using female-specific language like “sisterhood” in institutional communication.
“The world is not yet where we would like it to be in terms of equality for women and equal opportunities for women,” Chair of the PACGW Adele Wolfson said. “Having the experience of being here in a place where you are cherished but also challenged is so important still.”
The policy seems to enjoy considerable support within the Wellesley community. In February, faculty voted nearly unanimously in favor of both admitting trans women and allowing trans men to graduate, decisions which were upheld by the Board of Trustees last week.
According to a Wellesley News survey which garnered just under 350 responses, most students support the trustees’ decisions. When the policy was broken down, each major decision, including the choice not to accept applications from trans men, enjoyed majority support among the respondents with over half indicating that they were either “very satisfied” or “satisfied.” When it came to the decision to admit trans women, around 75 percent of students indicated that they were either “very satisfied” or “satisfied.” In fact, admitting trans women was one of the two most popular decisions the trustees made, the other being the continued use of women-centric language in institutional communications.
Some students, despite supporting the decision to admit trans women, are concerned with the requirement that an applicant “consistently identify as a woman.” Although Wellesley does not appear to rely on legal documents, which often identify a person by their designated sex at birth, some trans women may not feel safe coming out to their community and may be unable to convince their parents or teachers to write a letter affirming their identity as women.
Bottomly said that the most important thing to remember is that applications are evaluated on an individual basis and that admissions representatives are aware of the obstacles trans women may face in declaring their identity. Mata agreed that the admissions team will be able to handle the complexities of evaluating trans applicants.
“The admissions committee is so savvy,” Mata said. “They understand the kind of challenges that individuals face, especially younger people in trying to establish [their identity] legally.”
She added that she has confidence the Admissions Office will also be able to easily root out men who are “trolling the system” by posing as trans women, a concern which some students have raised.
Around 14 percent of students oppose the decision to admit trans women, citing concern that admitting those who were designated male at birth may detract from Wellesley’s purpose as a women’s college.
“I feel like the authenticity of being a women’s college is lost now that students will know there are physical males on campus — dressed like a woman or not — that could potentially be more of a threat when competing for grades, etc.,” Brittany Lamon-Paredes ‘15 said. “Over my four years, one of the most appealing things about Wellesley is that students can find their confidence as women.”
However, for the vast majority, admitting trans women falls squarely in line with the College’s principles, not because of the clothes they wear but because of their personal identity as women. Alumna Lia Poorvu, who graduated from Wellesley in 1956 and served on the PACGW, said for her, admitting trans women was a no-brainer.
“For me it was very easy to open admission to any person who identifies as a women, so that would go for trans women,” she said.
For Poorvu, the harder question was whether to allow trans men, who don’t identify as women, to graduate. However, it soon became clear to her and the rest of the committee that Wellesley would run into legal issues if it were to deny a degree to a student who completed the graduation requirements.
Kayla Bercu ’16, a trans student serving on the committee, supports the decision to not to accept applications from trans men as well as the decision to continue using female-specific language and pronouns in official communication. Bercu themself uses they, them and their pronouns.
“I think the default of the female pronoun usage is a radical way of expressing a women’s place, a sisterhood, as a place that is developing people who believe in women,” they said.
Bercu said that at times the discussions in PACGW were difficult, but that over the last four months they developed a deep respect for their fellow committee members and the College’s decision-making process.
“Sometimes things would be said, before I was out to the committee as trans, that they wouldn’t mean it and they wouldn’t know that what they were saying had personal implications for anyone in the room,” Bercu said. “It was tough at first, but then with more education and more understanding of the topic, people became really wonderful. It was really reflective of the Wellesley community. You give people the right tools and then they use them the right way and they care about the people around them”
Over the last few months, the PACGW has organized educational events related to gender identity, including Gender 101 workshops for students, faculty and staff. Although the committee did not recommend any particular admission or graduation policy, it gathered information to guide the debate among the Board of Trustees, working closely with the Trustee Committee on Gender and Wellesley. It was the Trustee Committee which ultimately recommended a course of action to the rest of the Board.
The least popular decision the Board of Trustees made, though it was still supported by the majority of survey respondents, was not to accept applications from non-binary individuals designated male at birth. Some 25 percent of respondents, as well as the advocacy group Wellesley 20/20, consider that distinction wrong-headed.
“To make that distinction is cisexist,” said Marissa Klee-Peregon ’16, a member of Wellesley 20/20, a group which advocated the admission of trans women and all non-binary applicants. “It demonstrates that you don’t understand what non-binary means.”
President Bottomly said that while she understands the concern, the Board approached this particular question from the standpoint of upholding Wellesley’s mission.
“We create a special environment for women … We want to admit people who really will benefit from that particular focus,” Bottomly said. “Non-binary [individuals] don’t self-identify as a woman and they’re not a woman by biological birth, so it just doesn’t fit with the mission.”
Survey respondents who were opposed to admitting non-binary individuals designated male at birth say that they do not grow up with the same cultural biases that women do because the rest of the world tends to see them as men.
Megan Locatis ’16 was disappointed that Wellesley chose to exclude trans men and non-binary individuals designated male at birth, saying that Wellesley’s mission should be to empower all those who have been marginalized because of their gender identity.
“I feel that this kind of rigid, gender-based criteria is no longer viable in our day and age,” Locatis said. “I feel that as a women’s college, which by its very nature focuses on supporting and helping a marginalized group, we should take the initiative and make space for other marginalized groups, especially those that face discrimination due to ingrained, antiquated notions of gender roles.”
The most inclusive admission policy at a women’s college to date is that of Mount Holyoke College, which admits anyone except those who were designated male at birth and identify as male, also known as cisgender men. The Wellesley policy is closer to that of Mills College, which admits self-identified women and people assigned female at birth who do not fit into the gender binary. Although the PACGW took into account policies at other schools, representatives said the top priority was always how the policy would affect the Wellesley community.
“If you really dig into their website and look at their identity, Mount Holyoke’s foundation is based upon social justice. Wellesley’s foundation is based upon an identity of sisterhood,” Bercu said. “These are very different places…Just like people construct their own identities, these institutions have to [do so] as well.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Hollins University, which requires trans women applicants to have undergone sex reassignment surgery, also known as gender confirmation surgery, and to have changed their legal documents to reflect their identity as women in order to be accepted into the undergraduate program. Hollins also does not award a degree to trans men who undergo gender confirmation surgery, begin hormone replacement therapy or legally change their names while enrolled, even if they have completed their requirements and are in good academic standing to graduate.
Now that Wellesley has clarified its policy, it will turn its attention to how best to implement it. This will require the cooperation of many different on-campus offices, including Admissions and Residential Life. Moving forward, the Admission Office must still ensure that the admission process is fair and does not place an unnecessary burden on trans women who apply. The College also plans to make sure resources are in place for trans women by the time the Class of 2020 arrives on campus. Wellesley 20/20 will shift its focus to ensuring that the campus is welcoming to trans women.
All Wellesley students, including those who disagree with the policy, are encouraged to voice their concerns, according to one member of the PACGW. The administration and faculty, in consultation with the PACCGW, will develop procedures and guidelines to implement the policy in time for the next admission cycle.
The trustees’ decision is just the beginning of what will be a long and carefully-considered process of preparing the College to welcome the Class of 2020. All the while, those involved say that Wellesley will not stray from its core mission.
“Throughout its history, Wellesley has remained true to itself and true to the vision of its founders,” Bottomly said. “It has not done do by remaining static and unchanging.”
Photos courtesy of Wellesley College Media Relations
Sabrina Leung ‘18 is the Digital Editor majoring in International Relations-Political Science with a minor in History. She is best reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @sabrinatzleung on Twitter.